In Romney's America, Welfare Is for Losers

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, right, earphones in, phone and laptop at hand, sits
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, right, earphones in, phone and laptop at hand, sits by Lake Winnipesaukee at his home Saturday, July 14, 2012, in Wolfeboro, NH. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Mitt Romney would like you to know that he thinks poor people are con artists who don't want to work, and he is intent on protecting you, the taxpayer, from underwriting their depraved lifestyle.

In a Romney administration, the social safety net would be reduced to a few basics: dumpster-diving at mealtime, pavement-dwelling at sleep time and prayer in the event of illness.

These are the unavoidable takeaways from the fact-free campaign commercial Romney aired last week that accused President Barack Obama of a devious plan to undermine the Clinton-era welfare reform. Clinton famously imposed time limits on welfare benefits while requiring that recipients work. Now, according to the Romney ad, Obama is quietly plotting to "gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements."

It takes no Marshall McCluhan to decipher the core point of Romney's commercial. He is dividing the nation into two camps: hard-working people who earn their own way over here, in the cul-de-sac and on the fairways, where he is seeking votes; and deviants who leech off taxpayers in those scary neighborhoods over there, where Obama serves as enabler-in-chief.

Romney underscored that point aggressively with his choice of running mate, Paul Ryan, who has built his political brand through a shrill determination to demolish government programs.

This is election-time porn for mean-spirited Republicans, a play on demeaning stereotypes of poor people favored by those who view poverty not as an economic condition but as a moral failing. The ad's subtext invites viewers to imagine welfare recipients reveling in drug-infused orgies paid for by taxpayers while Obama hands out the refreshments, presumably to ensure continued dependence on God-hating, entrepreneur-crushing Big Government. (And if white male voters, who are the heart of Romney's base, happen to imagine those welfare recipients as black, bonus points.)

Put aside for the moment the demonstrable falsity of the accusation that Obama wants to strip work requirements from welfare, something that has been amply debunked elsewhere. The key thing to grasp is how eager Romney seems to be to define himself as a man who sees the poor not as people who need a hand, but as lazy cheats.

Romney has been roasted for his proclivity for verbal gaffes that make him seen callous, yet his electoral strategy seems to be connecting with people prone to shout "Get a job!" at the guy in the wheelchair begging for nickels.

Whatever he really believes -- whether he is the cold-hearted hater of poor people he plays in the campaign, or is more like the moderate pragmatist he was as governor of Massachusetts -- Romney would enter the White House beholden to those who buy into the views he is espousing on the stump. That would shape his policies, hastening the further dismantling of an already tragically deficient safety net.

The Romney crowd is fond of wielding the class warfare label to fend off calls for wealthy Americans to pay a fair share of taxes. The new campaign commercial underscores the real class warfare the Republican machine has been waging for decades against the most vulnerable Americans.

Welfare presents a useful diversionary tactic in this battle. Here is a marginal form of wealth distribution that Romney can decry -- a supposedly wasteful transfer of taxpayer money to poor people -- while deflecting attention from the massive bottom-up wealth distribution Republicans have engineered via trillions of dollars in fiscally reckless tax cuts.

Between 2001 and 2011, the tax cuts delivered by George W. Bush and continued under Obama have cost roughly $2.8 trillion. That is about 17 times the roughly $165 billion that has been spent on the primary federal grant that funds welfare.

The worst part of Romney's campaign stagecraft is how he is holding up the Clinton welfare reform as an achievement when it is in fact a national disgrace. The reform was supposed to transition poor people from dependence on government handouts to a reliance on paychecks. Yet since its passage in 1996, the employment rate among working-age women with a high school degree but no college has dropped from 54 percent to 46 percent.

The reform ended cash assistance for anyone poor enough to qualify, turning welfare into a grant delivered to the states, which got to decide how to run it -- or not run it, as it were. This is the crux of what Ryan, Romney's vice presidential nominee, has proposed we do to Medicaid, the health care program for the poor.

Welfare reform manages to register as a policy success, mostly because it has slashed the number of people on welfare rolls. By that logic, we ought to stop handing out food stamps and then cite the fact that no one is receiving benefits as reason to celebrate a victory over hunger.

Before welfare reform, about two-thirds of poor American families with children were receiving cash assistance, according to an analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. By 2010, only about one-fourth of such families were getting any help.

This massive shift might be okay if at the same time huge numbers of former welfare recipients were landing decent jobs. But that wasn't happening in sufficient numbers even when the economy was expanding. When the Great Recession came, work requirements became a cruel joke.

Not coincidentally, between 1996 and 2010, the number of poor families with children grew from 6.2 million to 7.3 million.

The work requirements that Romney now falsely accuses Obama of trying to undo have become the primary grounds on which many states justify cutting single mothers from welfare rolls so they can use federal welfare money for other purposes. Many states demand that recipients attend resume-writing programs in order to keep their checks. Single mothers are generally not excused for missing class even when they lack child care or transportation. Clinton promised that subsidized child care and transportation programs would accompany welfare reform, but his words have proven hollow.

I saw the consequences this year in Georgia, where I met a 17-year-old mother who was selling her body to feed her infant daughter, having tried and failed to get welfare as she sought to go to college. The same story is playing out with the same tragic effect in nearly every state, from California to Ohio to New York.

The old form of welfare was rife with problems. It was far from a curative for poverty. The reformed version is a hoax. To celebrate it, you either have to be ignorant of its consequences or inured to them.

Or you have to be a Republican candidate for president who thinks the path to the White House leads through the gated community, where he sells visions of an America in which the poor are disdained as parasites.

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